Baahubali!!!!! Instead of my regular Malayalam post yesterday, I put up the first half of this Baahubali review, because it was dubbed in Malayalam and a big hit there too. And now the second half is today’s Telugu/Tamil post, because obviously it was also a big hit in Telugu and Tamil versions. And also, I am putting so much work into going through the film scene by scene, I don’t have time to do any additional post yesterday or today.
THIS ENTIRE POST IS SPOILERS!!!!!! And really detailed spoilers too, not just like “oh, I want to find out what happens”, but getting into the nitty-gritty of the character development and stuff. So if you haven’t seen the movie, it honestly won’t even make sense to you. Also, if you haven’t seen the movie, GO WATCH IT RIGHT NOW!!!!!!! It’s such a wonderful film, the only way I can describe it is with what I said in my last post, that it makes you feel like a child again.
Okay, now total SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I left off last time at the interval point. In the first half, Prabhas had arrived as a baby in the idyllic forest land at the foot of the waterfall. Inspired by a vision of Tamannah, he had climbed to the top of the waterfall as a young man. Only to discover that Tamannah was leading a life of hardness and misery. He courted her by teasing her and forcing her to see the beauty of the world again. She let herself have one night with him, and then left to go back to her responsibilities. Prabhas followed, saved her from a band of soldiers, and when she twisted her ankle (this is the part I have a hard time with, why not give her a real grown-up injury like an arrow through the shoulder to explain why she needed to be rescued?), he offered to take on her responsibility for her simply because he loves her. And so Prabhas broke into the fortress city of Mahishmati to rescue the captive princess chained in the town square. And just before intermission, his appearance set off a murmur through the square as the people started chanting “Baahubali!” But Prabhas didn’t even really care, he just wanted to continue his job and get back to Tamannah.
Okay, now here we are in the throne room. Again, very manly. Rana is drapped across his throne with a massive golden lion head above him. Compare it with our intro to adult Prabhas, pushing his face through a stream of water on an untouched mountain side. Prabhas is in tones of green and blue, purity and natural power and calm, while Rana is all gold and red, wealth and anger and manmade power.
Actual content of the scene is super boring, because the interval just ended and they don’t want to put in anything interesting while people are still finding their seats. Rana is repeating exactly what we just saw, that the people started calling out “Baahubali!” as they were raising his statue, proving that they still remember his rival. And he calls in all the guards to ask them who knows when that first began to be called. Coming in with the guards is Prabhas, who knocked one of the palace guards out and stole his uniform.
Prabhas knocks over an open flame, there is general confusion, and Rana sees his face for a moment and looks startled. Prabhas takes the opportunity to run for the square and Anoushka, still chained up. He pauses a moment when he sees her face, and she looks surprised to see him, but there is no time for that because the guards are chasing them down.
Notice how Prabhas fights here. He uses his hands, his legs, and the chains themselves, swinging them around. He also uses a spear as a melee weapon, whacking people with it rather than stabbing. It’s untrained fighting, rough and ready. The first and only time he uses a manmade weapon, a sword he takes from a guard, is to break open Anoushka’s chains. And then he immediately tosses it aside.
Chase-chase-chase, Prabhas has taken a carriage and thrown Anoushka in the back and is riding it out of the palace gates. He is chased by Rana’s son, eager for glory, who has dragged Kattappa along as well. And Kattappa happens to be carrying the ancient sword, the one the original Baahubali used, because he was digging it out of the hiding place where he kept it when he was interrupted by the order to give chase.
Prabhas is finally brought down, but not by a manmade weapon, by a tree limb. He awakes in a world that combines the manmade with the natural. Outside, rain, a few dying trees and stones. But also men with whips and swords and chains. It has to be like this, because this fight scene is the turning point when Prabhas goes from his carefree natural self to a man who takes own the responsibilities of the dark world where he has found himself, so we need the “props” for both possibilities available to him.
This story takes place in a generally pre-industrial society. And in pre-industrial society, the big indicator of status was your weapons. Swords mean royalty, in England or India or Russia or China or anywhere else. Prabhas using his bare hands to fight, that is what a peasant does. Or less than a peasant, a travelling gatherer type.
And Prabhas is happy with that status, he loves his adoptive mother and his forest life and everything else, he hates Tamanna’s world of battle and darkness, and he hates the city he entered with abused workers and everything else. We can see it in how he wears his guard disguises, uncomfortable and eager to toss them off as soon as possible and return to the loose fitting natural clothing of his youth. And so, through out the film, Prabhas has been resisting taking up the sword, taking up the mantle of power and civilization that we, the viewer, know is his birthright.
This whole fight scene is about maneuvering him to that point. He fights first with his bare hands, then with a tree limb. He wins using these methods, until Kattappa prepares for battle, Kattappa being the essence of the trained rather than natural warrior. Prabhas has no choice but to change his methods. And this is when the sword takes center stage, Kattappa calling for his horse to bring it to him, and Prabhas seeing the handle out of the corner of his eye, and leaping up to grab it, bring it down in one smooth move to decapitate Rana’s son, the prince.
There is a moment here, it’s not just about the death of the prince, it’s about noticing how Prabhas in one half of a second has become a king. Holding the sword in his hand, he stands differently, his head is higher, his posture taller, and everything is kind of more still and strong. And that is when Kattappa sees his face and drops to his knees. And so does everyone else.
Is it because he was forced to grab the sword in the heat of battle, and use it to kill someone for the first time, and that is what changed him? Or is it the sword itself, that particular sword? I think it is that particular sword. This is his father’s sword, whether he knows it now or not. Before, he took a sword off a guardman and immediately threw it away. But this sword, this sword he wants, even if he only sees it out of the corner of his eye, there is something about it that makes him leap into the air to grab it. And once he has it in his hand, there is something that goes through him that makes him into a different person.
But just because he has that tone of royalty now doesn’t mean he is any less the Prabhas he was before. It is just royalty added on to it. Which, strangely, makes him more willing to accept the story about to be told to him. While the real true royal Prabhas was raised on conspiracies and double dealing, this Prabhas will listen to what is told him and allow his feelings to show on his face and openly ask his questions. And thus, flashback! From Kattappa.
Thank goodness I had already read a couple versions of the Mahabharata before I saw this movie! Because they go through the set-up of this family feud super quickly, but it is easy to follow if you can pick-up the little Mahabharata connections and sort of build out from there.
There was a king, let’s call him Grandpa King. Grandpa King had two sons, the oldest was born a cripple while the youngest was perfect. The cripple was passed over for inheritance NOT because of his physical infirmity, but because his mind was too narrow and selfish. But he always blamed his physical infirmity and was angry at the world because of it. Same as the Mahabharata, except there the physical infirmity was blindness.
The crippled older son (let’s call him Uncle King) married Ramya Krishna. The younger son (let’s call him Dad King) married some other lady. Dad King dies, and shortly afterwards his wife dies giving birth. Just weeks earlier, Ramya Krishna had also given birth to her son by Uncle King.
So now we have an inheritance question. The rules of primogeniture have already been thrown out in the previous generation, with the most qualified ruler chosen. But in this case, they are babies, who is to say who is more qualified? Uncle King is pushing for his son to be named the heir, since he is the older of the two cousins, and the son of the oldest son. But, on the other hand, Dad King was actually king at the time of his death, shouldn’t the crown pass to his son, although he is the younger of the two cousins?
Again, this is the same problem as in the Mahabharata. There were two sets of cousins, should the inheritance go to the ones whose father had been named king, or the ones whose father was the oldest son? And, like in the Mahabharata, the decision is put off for a while as the children are raised and trained together.
One thing I find interesting is that both Prabhas’ characters, “Shivu” from the forest and this young prince being raised in the palace, are brought up by adoptive mothers with whom they have no blood relationship. Ramya Krishna is Uncle King’s wife, she has no blood connection to Dad King or Dad King’s dead wife. And yet she loves and raises their son as her own and alongside her own. And in many ways, her adoptive son has more in common with her than her biological son. I don’t know what this all means exactly, but I find it interesting.
Once the boys grow up, we get to see Mahishmati as it was under Ramya Krishna’s rule. The color schemes are full and beautiful here, reds mixed with greens and blues and golds. There are also women about the place, and people in general. You get a vision of a healthy happy varied society. Still on the same general sets as present day Mahishmati, but with the details so different. Even Rana himself is different, it’s not just that he is younger (no grey at the temples), it’s that he wears bright colored clothing, fewer jewels, and even moves in an easier manner.
The big flaw of this period is why Ramya Krishna would ever doubt that Prabhas rather than Rana is the better ruler. They may be equally skilled at weaponry and knowledge, but Prabhas is kinder to the people, more respectful of her, and all those other good things. Why not just announce he is king already? Or maybe she is playing a longer game? Putting off making the decision so she can keep the peace as long as possible?
In the first half, I talked about how Prabhas’ journey from the jungle to Mahishmati is about learning to unlock his potential, to be driven towards a challenge that will require all his skills. Now, in the second half, we get a glimpse of how this flashback Prabhas’ whole life is challenges. He is constantly being trained, tested, competing. There is never a moment to really just “be”. I wonder if this new Baahubali 2 film will reverse the pattern? Show present day Prabhas striving and trying and meeting challenges while past Prabhas’ story is told of what happens after he won the final challenge, was given the throne?
But I am getting ahead of myself! First, another challenge for past-Prabhas and young Rana. One of their trusted palace people has stolen their secret “war plans” and run off to sell them to the highest bidder. Prabhas and Rana have to chase him down and get back the plans.
This whole plot is essentially pointless, the starting point for a whole series of pointless plots. It took me a bit to realize why there is this problem, because the structure of the film hides it a little. But this is the old “middle film in a trilogy” problem!
The title of this film is “The Beginning” and the next film is called “The Conclusion”. Those are the two most exciting parts of a trilogy, the excitement of meeting everyone and learning about the central issues and generally the newness of it all. And then the ending, when good prevails in the final battle. The middle bit is the dull bit, the treading water because you know none of the battles will really be the “final” battle. And none of the characters are new and fresh any more.
Prabhas in the present in this movie gets the real “Beginning” parts. He goes on a quest, he falls in love, he changes. Prabhas in the past never really does that. He stays in the same place, as the same person, start to finish. He has a lot of challenges, but none of them are the “final” challenge. Really, the other two characters in his storyline, Rana and Ramya, get juicier bits. We get to see the end of Ramya in the first 5 minutes of this movie, and that adds depth to every moment she is onscreen. And we get to see Rana change from a slightly selfish cocky guy in the past, to complete unrepentant evil in the present, which makes him more interesting to watch as well. That moment when he almost cuts the rope, killing Prabhas in order to take the kingdom, that is more interesting than all the rest of it.
Maybe that’s why, in this whole quest sequence, I am more interested in Rana than Prabhas. Prabhas is great, don’t get me wrong, he does a wonderful job playing Brave and Perfect, without being super super boring too. And he does a great job showing how he commands a room just by walking into it, unlike present-Prabhas, who is more just sort of content to be one of the crowd. But it’s not like he’s really going to surprise us with anything, he starts out as the perfect prince and that’s how he ends too.
The real boredom starts after the quest is over. They return to Mahishmati, having learned that the war plans were sold to the Kalakeya people, a fiendish horde who will bring millions of soldiers to destroy the kingdom. Boring!!! I don’t want exposition, I want to see it!
And then we see it, and I don’t want that either, because it is sooooooooooooooooooo racist. In a different way than America would be racist. It’s important to remember that, although it looks very similar, we should not make a one-to-one comparison here. The biggest thing to be aware of is that, while racism towards darker skinned people is a big problem in India, it is not the defining major problem in their society the way it is in America. I wouldn’t presume to say what is the major defining problem in Indian society, but I don’t think it is racism.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t racism in India. Racism is America’s biggest export, after all. In TV shows, in films, we teach the world that those with darker skin are somehow sub-human, hilarious, disgusting, dangerous all at the same time. And for India in particular, I know there is a small African immigrant community, mostly laborers, who are occasionally resented for taking away jobs or economic opportunities, just like immigrants always are. And finally, there are the Adavasi communities, who share similarities with Africans in terms of darker skin tone more textured hair. These communities have been dismissed, abused, and considered “less than” through out Indian history.
It is a combination of all these elements that we see in the Kalakeya people presented in this film. The sound of the language is African, possibly related to the immigrant community in India. The casual dismissal of them as less than human, with strange Gods and rituals, and “ugly” because of their skin and hair, that comes from the attitude towards the Adavasi community. And over it all is that layer of disgust and distrust and everything else that is America’s terrible legacy. Usually in Indian film, I can blame these kinds of historical inhumanities on the British, but in this case, it’s really mostly America being terrible.
Part of America being terrible is that our evil head Kalakeya sexual threatens Ramya. Because America has taught the world that men with darker skin sexually crave women with lighter skin. That bit is just kind of depressing and uninteresting. What’s interesting is Rana’s reaction. Which is identical to Prabhas, they both instinctively move forward with weapons at the ready, cut to the quick and infuriated by the insult to Ramya.
Is it because, in his heart, Rana loves Ramya just like Prabhas does? Or is it because he sees the insult to Ramya as an insult to his pride, he is angry on his behalf not hers? It’s definitely an instinctive reaction not a moment of putting on a show for the benefit of others.
And then after the initial meeting between the two parties, we are back to exposition of the war plans. I don’t want exposition on the 4th watch, but I really really needed it on the second one. The war council is held over a little sand table with figures to represent the various battalions and so on. The plan is explained, the figures are moved across the board. Which is brilliant on the part of the director, because this next battle scene is super confusing. And we need to have this kind of dress rehearsal to watch in order to be able to understand it. Now we can understand that there are 3 parts to the battle. A stationary group by the gate, lead by Kattappa. Two moving groups on either side, led by Prabhas and Rana, who will start by defending the gate and eventually move forward in a pincer movement trying to reach the commander at the back of the enemy group.
The nobility of our hero is repeated again, some more, when Rana and evil Uncle King arrange for Rana’s group to have all the weapons and Prabhas to have none. But it doesn’t matter, because Prabhas figures out a way around it. It’s neat that he is so clever and resourceful, but again, it’s kind of dull that he is too perfect to even speak up and ask for more supplies.
Battle! Nothing terribly surprising here, while Rana is focused on achieving the specific goal of defeating the enemy, Prabhas wants the more general goal of winning the battle. In the end, Prabhas almost misses his chance because he hesitates before riding down a group of innocent women and children POWs. Rana does not stop. Prabhas goes back to rally the troupes when it looks like the gate is about to fall, Rana does not stop. Finally, Prabhas gets the chance to capture the enemy king, and Rana kills the king by stabbing him in the back.
Again, none of this is interesting in terms of Prabhas. We always knew that Prabhas was wonderful, and this all just confirms it. Exciting to watch, sure, but not really telling us anything new about the character, or changing the character in any way.
But it is interesting for Rana. We see him go from a competitive slightly selfish little boy, to in a moment of weakness considering letting his cousin die, to straight up running down women and children who are in his way. It’s not just about seeing him become “evil”, it’s also seeing the sacrifices he has made of his humanity in order to get here. In the end, when all of this seems for naught because Prabhas has “won”, Rana can’t take it, and he goes around the bounds of sportsmanship, and even the “rules” of the game (Ramya ordered them to bring her the enemy leader alive, not dead), because he just has to win.
That’s what I find most interesting in terms of the sequel. We know past-Prabhas will continue to be perfect and noble and all that. But what will Rana do when he has his destiny taken from him at the last minute? After going through aaaaaaaalllllllll of this?
Because he does lose his destiny, none of the behavior during the battle ultimately mattered, because this was always and still is a matter of choice from Ramya and nothing else. Notice, she never even agreed to the “game” that whoever captured the enemy would be made king. That was the suggestion of Uncle King. Uncle King, who all along has clung to these “rules”, believing that it was merely his physical infirmity that made him unable to be king, not seeing that it was a choice on the part of his father, beyond any rules. That there is a higher responsibility to the people, to the city, and it can’t just be controlled by some simple series of rules, there has to be an intelligent judgement that controls it all. Ramya understand this, that is why she refused to name an heir when they were babies, because it wasn’t about which child more closely followed the laws of inheritance, it was about deciding which child would better be able to lead.
And thus, she chooses Prabhas. Because during this stressful battle situation, Prabhas proved he would always put the people first, like a true king, and Rana did not. And Prabhas understands this. He doesn’t argue or struggle to understand her reasoning the way Rana and Uncle King seem to. He knows both that she is right in her judgement, and that she has the right to make that judgement call, no matter what the “rules” say. And here we end the flashback, with Prabhas confirmed in his place as the true king in every way, Rana burning with envy, and Anoushka not yet on the scene.
Back in the present day, present Prabhas has also reached that point of acknowledged power and kingship, as you can see from the cheering crowds in the past who fade into the crowds in the present. But the person at the center of those crowds is very different. Past Prabhas is ready for this, in every way. He knows how to be a king, not just in terms of using a sword or reading a map, but making snap judgments, always seeing the bigger picture, sacrificing anything he desires for himself at the alter of kingship. Present Prabhas isn’t there yet.
And you can see that, because his first question after hearing this whole story isn’t about Mahishmati and its people, it’s the simple cry of any child, wanting to know what happened to his father?
In the very beginning, I talked about how the first 5 minutes of the film rely on a deep primal connection in the audience, the idea of a baby in danger, being taken and passed forward to a safer place. The last 5 minutes bring us back to that place. Sure, the Mahishmati battle scenes are fun and all of that. But on a deep internal level, we just care about these characters. We care about present Prabhas and his personal journey, this new “family” he is making with the new people he has met along the way, and we want him to find his original “family” as well, his mother and his honorary uncle, Kattappa.
And that’s why the big huge moment of the film, the thing that takes us into the closing screen, the thing that inspired the hashtag for the sequel #WKKB, is not some big battle scene, but the very personal betrayal of our honorable noble Kattappa stabbing his beloved student past Prabhas in the back, and breaking the heart of present Prabhas when he hears of it.